In Compromise, Israeli Soccer Players to Receive Work Permits to Play Shabbat Games

The move comes in response to a petition challenging Saturday matches and a court order requiring the attorney general to explain why he is not enforcing Sabbath rest labor laws in the sport.

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A soccer match between Hapoel Be'er Sheva and Bnei Yehuda.
FILE PHOTO: A soccer match between Hapoel Be'er Sheva and Bnei Yehuda.Credit: Ilan Assayag

After the High Court of Justice issued an order Thursday giving Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit 90 days to explain why soccer games in the second-tier National League are held on Shabbat, the Israel Football Federation and the management of the National League, along with the Economy Ministry, have come up with a creative solution. If necessary, they say they will issue individual work permits to everyone involved in the holding of professional soccer games on the Sabbath rather than obtaining blanket approval for the games. The permits would be issued not only for the players, but also for coaches, referees and even stadium ushers.

Thursday's interim order was issued in response to a petition by the Movement for a Jewish State challenging the holding of soccer matches on the Jewish Sabbath. It named a number of government officials and National League clubs as respondents. Through its order on Thursday, the high court is requiring that the attorney general explain why he decided not to enforce the Hours of Work and Rest Law in the soccer sector, why this decision does not contravene labor court decisions and why the Work and Rest Law shouldn’t be fully implemented when it comes to professional soccer games played on Shabbat.

Since the court order was just issued on Thursday, the Justice Ministry does not yet have a position on the issue, but in any event any change in procedure would not take effect over the next three months.

The idea of obtaining the individual Shabbat work permits would include players who are Sabbath observers, but, based on a plan worked out last year, these players would play on Shabbat but would have arrangements made for them that would not require them to travel on the Sabbath.

Attorney General Mendelblit's predecessor, Yehuda Weinstein, had decided at the end of 2015 that it would not be appropriate to ban soccer games on Shabbat. Responding to a letter that Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev wrote to him, Weinstein asserted that non-enforcement of the law when it comes to professional soccer games could continue because the games have always taken place without special Sabbath work permits. Non-enforcement preserves a decades-long status quo, Weinstein wrote.

“It is no simple matter to change an enforcement policy in place for many years,” he stated. “Pursuing criminal proceedings because of a game on Shabbat after decades of not doing anything is harsh in my opinion. Let me add that I was notified that currently a government initiative is being promoted to examine the issue and at the same time, you informed me in your letter that you intended to establish an inter-ministerial team to find a comprehensive solution. Given these reasons, I did not find it appropriate at this time to order a change in the standing policy of non-enforcement.”

Attorney General Weinstein took the position after the Tel Aviv Labor Court ruled that employing the players who challenged Shabbat soccer would be against the law unless a Sabbath work permit is issued by the Economy Ministry.

Following Thursday's interim order, the chairman of the Movement for a Jewish State, Israel Zair, said: “We hope that stopping games in the National League will become the policy for all leagues, so that 800 soccer players who placed their signature [on a statement indicating] their desire to play solely on weekdays will be able to fulfill their desire, to the satisfaction of most of the people of Israel.”